As I move through Lent, my days are crowded with appointment-making, struggles around the future of the church, the ever-present paperwork required to keep a large organization (i.e. The Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church) going and the seemingly relentless press of leadership, pastoral care, and biblical teaching. A similar list, in slightly different form, could probably be constructed by every person under pastoral appointment. Likewise, as I visit with laity, I am quite conscious that they too can come up with their own version of my list. Furthermore, I have long since gotten over the notion that retired people are somehow exempt from pressures, concerns, and problems. They are not. In this whirlwind of life, I am constantly convicted by the simple truth that the modern pace of life is unsustainable. It is no accident that the term “burnout” has entered our language. Whether religious or secular, personnel directors all over the world struggle with its reality. So too do the rest of us! A part of the beauty of Lent, the season for journeying to the cross – to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and beyond – is that this liturgical time beckons me to slow down and reflect. While waiting for worship to begin at Arborlawn last Sunday (March 4, 2018), I recalled an incident that John Ortberg wrote about in his marvelous book Soul Keeping. He had just move to Chicago and was starting an extremely busy time of ministry and work. Rev. Ortberg called Dallas Willard for advice on how to stay spiritually heathy. Willard commented, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry form your life” (John Ortberg, Soul Keeping, p. 20). Ortberg did what I would do. He wrote it down. Then he proceeded to ask what else he should do. He records Dallas Willard’s answer. “There is nothing else. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life” (John Ortberg, Soul Keeping, p. 20). To which I must honestly respond…. Gulp! I know Willard is right. I have experienced this truth time and time again in my own life. I have read, mediated upon and preached about Jesus doing so (Matthew 14:13, Luke 9:10, as examples). The importance of such time apart occupies a place of prominence on the journey to the cross. The scene comes in prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:36 reports, “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’” In our time, we are in danger of spiritual disintegration. In the grip of self-centered passions, we are in danger of spiritual disintegration. A colleague recently commented to me that he’d spent too much time watching the evening news. When I asked what he meant by that he commented that he would get worked up by something he read or watch on TV. He found himself getting angry or hateful or disrespectful. Even as he criticized others for incivility, he discovered that he was getting less civil. His soul – the center of his being – was getting disconnected from God. The Apostle Peter warns us, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, NIV). Parker Palmer, a Christian leader in spiritual formation, has commented, “The divided life is a wounded life, and the soul keeps calling us to heal the wound” (From John Ortberg, Soul Keeping, p. 67). In the fragmentation of our time and age, the season of Lent calls us back to God in Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Wrestling with my own soul, my own struggle with spiritual disintegration, I recently read a blog written by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary in which he called us back to the lessons of one of the great saints of the Church, Catherine of Siena. He noted that “Catherine of Siena teaches us how to live with a single-minded awareness of the presence of Christ.” Dr. Tennent continued, “One of the great Trinitarian blessings of the church is, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” This blessing goes back to 2 Corinthians 13 and finds its way into liturgies across the life of the church. It was a well-known blessing in the 14th century as well, but Catherine did not say it that way. She famously would say, ‘In the Name of the Father, and of Thee, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen’” (http://timothytennent.com/2018/02/28/catherine-of-siena-our-lenten-guide/). Perhaps more than anything else it is this that we need as we approach Holy Week. We need to become again a people who “live with a single-minded awareness of the presence of Christ.” Once upon a time Methodists were known for such an awareness. On occasion we still are. It is beyond time that we recover such a spiritual sensitivity. One last story for the journey:
“Over the recent centuries, every once in a while a follower of Jesus gets a vision for this kind of intimate life with God. Centuries ago a man named Nicolas Herman, who was an uneducated household servant from a poor family, got converted to the Christian faith by looking at a tree. It was winter, and the tree was barren, but it occurred to Nicolas that the tree would grow leaves again in the spring. This produced in him a deep sense of God’s care and power. It struck him that if God does that for trees, he would surely do it for a person. So this young man entered into a monastic community, spent his life in the kitchen as a cook and dishwasher, and all the while privately devoted his life to being with God. Today we know him as Brother Lawrence.When he died, friends gathered some of his letters together and turned them into a book. The book is called The Practice of the Presence of God. It was written in the seventeenth century and is now thought to be the most widely read book in the history of the human race other than the Bible – this, from an uneducated dishwasher. When the soul is with God it doesn’t matter if you are a dishwasher or a president. The soul thrives not through our accomplishments but through simply being with God” (John Ortberg, Soul Keeping, p. 119). The journey of Lent invites us to appropriate the insights of Catherine of Siena and Brother Lawrence into our lives. Living with a “single-minded awareness of the presence of Christ” is not just for admired saints of old. Living in such an awareness is for all of us. In point of fact, this was one of the initial emphases of the early Methodist movement.